The Million-Dollar Kindle Question
Is there room in this glutted e-reader cover marketplace for one that doesn’t say “I am an idiot”?
Amazon introduced its e-reader, the Kindle, to the market in fall 2007. By the following spring, I was the proud owner of a Kindle DX. My device was the size of a standard-issue tenth-grade biology textbook and weighed at least as much, and that’s before we account for the added bulk of the water-resistant Patagonia case I’d also purchased. The machine’s design could have been sleeker, and its on-screen text sharper, but I enjoyed the futuristic thrill of pressing the Sync button as my subway hurtled across the Manhattan Bridge.
As prices lowered and Kindles proliferated, the novelty wore off. I went back to schlepping around regular books, until about a year ago, when something that I needed to look over for work was sent to me as a PDF and there was only one way to read it if I didn’t want to sit in front of my computer for seven hours.
The reunion of my enormous Kindle and me was a surprisingly happy one. Though it was now roughly four times the size of most of the other e-readers on the subway platform, it still allowed me to go book shopping while I waited for water for my pasta to boil. My machine, at this point older than some of my fellow commuters, resumed its permanent-fixture status in my bag. And then, at the age of six, he died on me. His dormant face, which used to bear an impression of Jane Austen or James Joyce, was now shattered, resembling a busted Etch A Sketch.
My replacement Kindle, the Paperwhite, features a light-up screen that allows one to read it while somebody else sleeps nearby. (Note to anyone with an expectant mother in your life: Buy this for her, now.)
I love its streamlined design (I never used all the letter keys on the old model). I love how lightly it sits in my lap while I hold a glass of wine in one hand and browse the store with the other. It has only one problem: It’s naked. And once he detected how much I adored my new Kindle, my two-year-old son took to holding it under the bathtub tap and pretending to turn the knob while shouting, “Wet! Wet!”
Dressing a Kindle is no easy task. There are zillions of options on the market, but they all fall into one of two categories: bleak or twee. There are the drab, monochromatic pebbled-leather numbers that say: “I am about to go to conference room 706-F to give a talk on the history of orthodontic billing systems.” And then there are the cute ones that might as well say: “I am an idiot.”
Okay, that might be a little harsh, but they tend to have butterflies, or a twee typeface better suited to a T-shirt at Anthropologie. While they would work well for some of the titles in my library, I can’t imagine carrying the thriller I’m excited to read in such a cute package.
Farrin Jacobs, editorial director of Poppy books, an imprint of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, also agonized over the cover for her company-issued Sony e-reader. “I ruled out a conventional case pretty quickly,” she wrote in an e-mail. She decided to go the Etsy route. “Next step was narrowing down all the patterns I liked…. Seriously, I spent hours buying this stupid case.”
She ultimately selected this guy, from a seller in Saint Paul, Minnesota:
She chose well. But unlike Ms. Jacobs, who still favors paper books and uses her e-reader exclusively for the YA manuscript submissions she has to read for work, I needed something that would accommodate my promiscuous, often weird, and sometimes dark taste. A groovy Etsy case would work for the Sheila Heti and Emma Straub books in my library, but what about hard-boiled Scottish detective fiction or this appealing book about a lonely divorced man who lives in a rooming house and is drawn to the turtle tank at the London Zoo? It was unsolvable!
I called Rodrigo Corral, the rock star of contemporary book-jacket design and now the creative director of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
I explained my predicament: I needed a Kindle cover that would adapt to my ever-changing reading material. What if, I posited, there were a design that detected what I was reading and displayed a little glyph that hinted at the narrative (a butterfly for Lolita, a ticker of the hero’s ever-growing lifelong word count for The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.)? I don’t have any tattoos, but this coy signal could give my subway riders something to ogle and wonder about.
Mr. Corral did better than that. The design he dreamed up doesn’t just take into account the reading material — it taps both its owner’s and its beholders’ souls. It one-ups the best book-jacket designs; it reflects the words that are being taken in as well as the reader’s mind-set and setting.
“The spinning wheel suggests something’s about to open; what it is, I do not know. The cover will change based on your mood, the mood of the train car you are in, et cetera,” he said of the sketch he made for me. “That is, if the Kindle is still around.”
Corral’s notion is just that—a brilliant idea that still lives in imagination land. To all the technically inclined readers of Medium, I invite you to break out your tool kits and run with it. Just please, whatever you do, make sure to send me a prototype.